Predicting the winner of a major international tournament is a natural part of being a football fan, even if it can sometimes be something of a fool's errand – as proven by Greece and Denmark.

But considering how integral statistics are to football these days, using data could potentially give you the edge, and that's where Stats Perform comes in.

Our Artificial Intelligence team have used Opta's extensive data reserves to quantify each team's chances of winning the entire tournament.

Every match has been run through the Stats Perform Euros Prediction model to calculate the estimated probability of the outcome (win, draw or loss). This uses odds from betting markets and Stats Perform team rankings, which are based on historical and recent performances.

It takes into consideration the strength of each team's opponents as well as the difficulty of their respective paths to the final, plus the make-up of the groups and any relevant seedings heading into the knockouts.

Then, the rest of the tournament is simulated 40,000 times and analysed, providing the AI team with a percentage for each nation, showing the probability of them ultimately lifting the trophy at Wembley on July 11.

Without any further ado, let's check out the results, some of which may come as something of a surprise…

MOST-LIKELY WINNERS: France (20.5 per cent)

Well, this one probably isn't much of a shock. Anyone who has looked through the squad at Didier Deschamps' disposal has likely come to the conclusion that Les Bleus will have to implode a la the 2010 World Cup if they're to be beaten.

Most of the key players from their 2018 World Cup-winning squad are present, and now they can call upon the services of Karim Benzema again, which is no small thing.

 

Our model also gives France a 46.8 per cent chance of finish top of the so-called 'Group of Death', which also includes defending champions Portugal and a Germany side desperate for redemption after World Cup humiliation in Russia.

If France are successful, Deschamps will become the first man in history to win the World Cup and Euros as both a player and manager.

2. Belgium (15.7 per cent)

Could this be the last-chance saloon for Belgium's 'Golden Generation'? Our predictor model certainly suggests they're still in with a great chance of winning the title, with their 15.7 per cent the second highest.

They have the joint-oldest squad at the tournament (29.2 years) along with Sweden, so while they're certainly not a young team, several of their best players are right at the peak of their powers, with Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku coming into the tournament arguably in the form of their lives.

 

They looked sharp in qualifying – for what it's worth – with a 100 per cent win record and a 40-goal haul that wasn't matched by any other team, while they will be strong favourites to win their group ahead of Russia, Denmark and Finland.

3. Spain (11.3 per cent)

Now, one thing our model cannot take into consideration is a coronavirus outbreak. La Roja had to field their Under-21s for the senior side's final pre-Euros warm-up game against Lithuania – while it means nothing for their chances at the tournament, they did ease to a 4-0 win.

It remains to be seen if there are any further consequences of Sergio Busquets and Diego Llorente testing positive for COVID-19, but if we assume Luis Enrique is able to rely on a squad that's more or less the selection he initially picked, they will at least be strong options to reach the latter stages.

Although perhaps not blessed with the kind of 'superstar' talent they've had at other tournaments over the past 15 years or so, they do have a highly regarded coach and beat Germany 6-0 as recently as November. Nevertheless, their disrupted build-up to the tournament could be telling when their campaign starts.

4. Germany (9.8 per cent)

Joachim Low's going to have to upset the odds if he is to enjoy one last hurrah with Die Mannschaft. The World Cup-winner coach is stepping down a year early after the Euros, with Hansi Flick set to take over.

Having the likes of Thomas Muller back in the squad after a stunning couple of seasons with Bayern Munich will surely improve their chances – though our model doesn't take player data into account.

 

The predictor will see that Germany have failed to beat Denmark and North Macedonia in two of their three most recent games, while they also have a particularly hard group.

5. Portugal (9.6 per cent)

The other major footballing power from the 'Group of Death' – our predictor suggests Portugal are the least likely of themselves, France and Germany to win Euro 2020.

Nevertheless, La Selecao will surely feel good about themselves heading into the competition. Their squad is arguably significantly better than the one that won Euro 2016, while coach Fernando Santos is a shrewd operator.

They also have this chap up front called Cristiano Ronaldo, who is one away from setting a new record for the most goals (10) in European Championship history.

THE REST OF THE FIELD

According to our predictor, a resurgent Italy and Netherlands are the next most likely to win the tournament, which would represent a rather good turnaround from missing out on the 2018 World Cup – in fact, the Oranje weren't at Euro 2016 either.

At this point there are probably many of you pondering – assuming you've not just scrolled straight down to the list – about England's chances.

Well, the Three Lions' ranking here is a prime example of how a good draw can really pay. While they should – in theory, at least – have more than enough firepower to get out of a group that also contains Croatia, neighbours Scotland and Czech Republic, their route to the final would almost certainly see them come up against one – or more – of Germany, France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands. They're also probably not helped by the fact they've played more Euros games (31) without reaching the final than any other team.

England's 5.2 per cent chance of success sees them behind Denmark (5.4 per cent), whose path to the final would likely be a little kinder, though the caveat is that the Three Lions could potentially play the vast majority of their matches on home soil at Wembley.

Tournament debutants North Macedonia are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the least likely to win Euro 2020, with their chances rated at 0.02 per cent.

 

6. Italy (7.6 per cent)

7. Netherlands (5.9 per cent)

8. Denmark (5.4 per cent)

9. England (5.2 per cent)

10. Switzerland (2.3 per cent)

11. Sweden (1.5 per cent)

12. Croatia (1.0 per cent)

13. Russia (1.0 per cent)

14. Poland (0.8 per cent)

15. Ukraine (0.8 per cent)

16. Wales (0.6 per cent)

17. Turkey (0.4 per cent)

18. Czech Republic (0.2 per cent)

19. Austria (0.2 per cent)

20. Finland (0.1 per cent)

21. Hungary (0.1 per cent)

22. Scotland (0.1 per cent)

23. Slovakia (0.04 per cent)

24. North Macedonia (0.02 per cent)

Having been scrapped last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, the Ballon d'Or returns in 2021.

With Euro 2020 and the Copa America rescheduled for this year, the stars of Europe and South America have the chance to use those tournaments as a springboard towards claiming the game's top individual prize.

Following club seasons either laden with trophies or padded with statistical achievements – or, in some cases, a bit of both – a few elite-level performances could make the difference in the race to win France Football's famous award.

Stats Perform has chosen a shortlist of 14 players who could make themselves Ballon d'Or favourites should they sparkle over the next month...

 

Karim Benzema

Remarkably, Karim Benzema failed to win a trophy with Real Madrid despite registering 30 goals and nine assists in 46 games in all competitions.

That form did bring his international exile to an end, though, and if he keeps it up for France over the coming month, a Ballon d'Or challenge is not out of the question.

Kevin De Bruyne

A second successive PFA Players' Player of the Year award for Kevin De Bruyne came after another standout season for Manchester City in which he won the Premier League and EFL Cup.

Had Pep Guardiola's men finally got their hands on the Champions League trophy, the Ballon d'Or might be De Bruyne's already. Leading Belgium to Euros glory would probably do the job.

Ruben Dias

The other prime candidate for City's player of the season, Ruben Dias was a colossal performer at the heart of their defence after joining from Benfica, winning the Premier League's Player of the Season award.

Defenders' difficulties winning big individual prizes are well documented, and the last to lift the Ballon d'Or – Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 – did so after leading Italy to the World Cup.

Bruno Fernandes

Bruno Fernandes was heartbroken to lose the Europa League final on penalties as his wait for a trophy with Manchester United goes on.

However, a combined 46 direct goal involvements – the most of any Premier League player – means individual glory could be on the cards should Fernandes and Portugal shine.

Phil Foden

The PFA Young Player of the Year winner, Phil Foden blossomed in 2020-21 from prodigious talent to integral player for both City and England.

His Ballon d'Or chances are probably slimmer than those of a couple of his City team-mates, but long-awaited success for the Three Lions could put him right in the mix.

Harry Kane

Another star performer in 2020-21 to end the season empty-handed, Harry Kane finished top for goals (23) and assists (14) in the Premier League despite Tottenham finishing seventh.

Winner of the Golden Boot at the last World Cup, Kane is England's undisputed star going into Euro 2020 and has every chance of topping the scoring charts again.

N'Golo Kante

Arguably the popular choice for the award, N'Golo Kante won the Champions League with Chelsea after being named man of the match in both legs of the semi-final and the final against City.

France are most observers' favourites to win the Euros and, if they do, Kante will surely be facing short odds to win the ultimate individual trophy – even if it's one in which he has little interest.

Robert Lewandowski

It's widely accepted that, had the award been handed out last year, it would have gone to Robert Lewandowksi, the man whose 55 goals in 47 games delivered Bayern the treble.

How do you follow that? Well, he scored 41 times in the Bundesliga alone in 2020-21, breaking Gerd Muller's 49-year-old single-season record. Winning the Euros with Poland might be a stretch, but finishing as top goalscorer is certainly achievable.

Romelu Lukaku

The best player in Serie A as Inter ended an 11-year wait to win the title, Romelu Lukaku enjoyed the best season of his career, with 41 direct goal involvements in 44 appearances.

With eight goals in his past nine games for Belgium, the 28-year-old could well be the man to fire Roberto Martinez's side to glory, which would make him very hard to overlook.

Kylian Mbappe

Paris Saint-Germain lost their Ligue 1 title to Lille and could not reach back-to-back Champions League finals, which seems incredible given Kylian Mbappe managed 42 goals and 11 assists in just 47 appearances.

Departing Bayern Munich boss Hansi Flick this year said there was no question Mbappe would win the Ballon d'Or one day. The Euros could be his ticket to glory in 2021.

Lionel Messi

The winner of the previous award in 2019 – the sixth of his astonishing career – Lionel Messi amazingly plundered 28 goals and had nine assists for Barcelona from January 1 onwards.

It wasn't enough to win Barca the LaLiga title, but it does put him right in the mix. If he can finally win the Copa America with Argentina, Ballon d'Or number seven may well follow.

Neymar

Even Neymar would admit he has only an outside chance of winning this year's Ballon d'Or, his 17 goals and eight assists in 2020-21 a modest return for the world's most expensive footballer.

He typically produces in a Brazil shirt, though, and winning the Copa America would propel him right back into the mix for the individual prize he supposedly craves above all others.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Juventus may have lost their grip on Serie A, but Cristiano Ronaldo still finished as top goalscorer (with 29), and they won the Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia.

Ronaldo won his fourth of five Ballons d'Or after Portugal triumphed at Euro 2016, and there's little doubt he would be vying for a sixth if they defend that trophy.

Luis Suarez

Discarded by Barcelona for being past his usefulness, Luis Suarez responded with 21 goals in 32 games to propel Atletico Madrid to a first league title since 2013-14.

Should Uruguay upset the odds at the Copa America, you can bet Suarez will be in the running for the Ballon d'Or. Quite what Barca fans would make of that is hard to say.

When Roberto Mancini was appointed in May 2018, the only way was up for Italy.

For the first time since 1958, the Azzurri were going to miss out on a World Cup. A play-off defeat to Sweden left the four-time winners looking on from afar when the 2018 edition was staged in Russia.

Mancini himself said the country was still in mourning six months later upon his arrival. There had been tears of sadness from the great Gianluigi Buffon in the immediate aftermath following a failure to score at San Siro, as a 0-0 draw on home soil followed on from a 1-0 defeat in the first leg in Stockholm.

Just over three years later, however, and Italy's outlook ahead of a major tournament could not be more contrasting. The only tears they are hoping to see this time around are the joyous kind.

Having lacked a clear and obvious gameplan under Gian Piero Ventura, the current crop have developed a sharpness and style to match their manager's dress sense.

At the very beginning of his reign, Mancini had made clear what needed to happen to get Italy off the canvas and back with a fighting chance of competing at the highest level. In hindsight, he has proven to be the ideal man for a crisis.

"It's a difficult time and there's a lot to do"

Mancini was not lying with his assessment of the situation at his first press conference after taking the job. Italy had finished second behind Spain in Group G of World Cup qualifying, though their only defeat in the round-robin stage had come away to La Roja.

However, the play-off round that followed was a disaster in football terms. Beaten by a goal from Jakob Johansson in the first meeting, Ventura's side dominated possession and attempted plenty of shots second time around, only to draw a blank. Sweden stood firm, dealing with cross after cross to keep a clean sheet and punch their ticket.

As Italy strived without success to find a breakthrough, Lorenzo Insigne sat on the bench. The Napoli forward was not called into action at a time when his team desperately needed to score, despite Daniele De Rossi's best attempts to get his compatriot involved.

This time around, Insigne is no longer a peripheral figure. Mancini's preference has been to play a 4-3-3 system, one that allows the 30-year-old to prosper.

There remains a focus on being defensively solid – this is still Italy – but not at the expense of capitalising on opportunities to attack. In qualifying, Italy managed 37 goals, a tally only Belgium (40) bettered, as they won 10 from 10, conceding just four in the process.

Andrea Belotti finished as their leading scorer (four goals), but Ciro Immobile may end up being the chosen one to occupy the central role up top. Both showed they can create too, providing a pair of assists in Group J.

"Our task will be to make Italy close to the fans again through our play and results"

September 10, 2018. That is the last time Italy lost an international game, going down 1-0 to Portugal in a Nations League contest to an Andre Silva goal.

Since that result, Mancini has overseen a 27-match unbeaten run. While the opposition has not always been of the highest standard – the qualification group draw was certainly kind – they have repeatedly churned out results.

A 4-0 thrashing of the Czech Republic in their final warm-up game before the European Championship saw history made, Italy winning eight consecutive games in all competitions without conceding a goal for the first time.

Mancini has overseen such a streak even while heavily rotating, using 40 different players during qualifying, more than any other nation.

Still, some have been regulars under the former Inter and Manchester City boss. Centre-back Leonardo Bonucci played all 10 group fixtures, while Jorginho featured in nine games, the deep-lying midfielder a key figure in helping build patiently from the back by controlling possession, with his 1,019 touches in qualifying comfortably the most by any Italian and only behind Belgium centre-back Toby Alderweireld and Germany midfielder Joshua Kimmich among all teams. Second on the list for Italy was another midfielder in Marco Verratti, who had 917 touches in just seven outings.

With those two charged with dictating proceedings, the third midfielder is afforded the opportunity to work in more advanced positions. Nicolo Barella did so against the Czechs, while there are options aplenty in the 26-man party to fill the wide positions.

The televised show to reveal Italy's final list of players certainly provided plenty of entertainment, but so too has the team on the pitch. This is a squad that Italy fans should enjoy watching in the coming weeks.

"I want to be the head coach who brings Italy back to where we belong in Europe and in the world"

Mancini was defiant when he first met the media in terms of his long-term aim, but can his Italy keep on winning?

The plans put in place have worked so far. Euro 2020, however, will be the key test as to whether such a streak has been built on solid enough foundations to achieve success against the best on the continent. Home advantage will help in the group – they play Turkey, Switzerland and Wales in Rome – as Mancini prepares for his first major tournament in charge.

A delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could have easily cost them momentum, but in the additional year they have won 10 and drawn three times. A hat-trick of 2-0 victories in March gave them an ideal start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, putting them on course to reach Qatar.

Mancini's performance led to a contract extension through to 2026, a long-term commitment that shows all is rosy in the garden. The Italian Football Federation had done the same with Ventura too, only to sack him not long after, but this feels different. There is a togetherness among the squad, aided by results on the pitch.

"Mancini has created a great group, a great spirit and has put everyone in a position to express themselves at their best and have fun. We are playing great football," Insigne told Rai Sport after the Czech Republic friendly, having scored one himself and set up a goal for Domenico Berardi.

That spirit – not to mention the streak – will come under pressure in the coming weeks, particularly as Mancini has raised hopes that this Italy can go far.

Still, for a coach who had to pick up the pieces after that miserable night in Milan, creating a situation where such lofty expectations even exist is an impressive achievement in itself.

It may be a year late, but Euro 2020 is almost upon us and the opportunity for glory is just around the corner.

The usual suspects will be undoubtedly favoured by many, with France's squad seemingly stronger than ever, Portugal possessing a seriously talented group and England looking good as they bid to end their long wait for international success.

Similarly, Italy and the Netherlands are back on the scene after missing out on tournament qualification in recent times, while Germany will be hoping to bounce back from their World Cup humiliation.

Die Mannschaft were eliminated from the group stage of a World Cup for the first time ever by South Korea three years ago, and Joachim Low will be eager to restore some dignity in what will be his final tournament in charge.

But could the trophy actually end up being lifted by one of the unfancied teams? We all remember Greece's remarkable triumph in 2004, for example.

With that in mind, Stats Perform has identified some potential dark horses ahead of the tournament.

Turkey – Group A

Key man: Burak Yilmaz
One to watch: Abdulkadir Omur

It's fair to say Turkey are a curious team in international football. They have reached the semi-finals in two – and come third on both occasions – of their past three major tournaments, which is impressive, but the caveat is that trio of qualifications spanned 2002-2018.

Euro 2020 will be only their fourth major tournament appearance out of a possible 11 this century across the European Championship and World Cup, and they disappointed at Euro 2016 as they were eliminated at the group stage.

But there are reasons for optimism this time, particularly given the encouraging amount of talent in a youthful squad – their average age of 25 years exactly is the lowest at the tournament, and it would be even lower were it not for the presence of 35-year-old Burak Yilmaz, who certainly isn't there as some kind of token 'Golden Oldie'.

 

The burly centre-forward proved plenty of doubters wrong in his debut Ligue 1 season with Lille, his 16 goals and five assists helping them to an unlikely title triumph. Those 21 direct goal involvements put him six ahead of any other Lille player, and his experience helped a Les Dogues team that was also on the young side.

Yilmaz became the first player to score at least 15 goals in his first season with Lille in Ligue 1 since Moussa Sow in 2010-11 (25), while his penalty at Angers on the final day saw him beat the record for the most goals netted by a Turkish player in a single campaign in the competition, set by Mevlut Erdinc in 2009-10.

 

Yilmaz's Lille team-mates Zeki Celik and Yusuf Yazici – the latter scored 14 club goals across all 2020-21 competitions from midfield – are also present, while Hakan Calhanoglu offers guaranteed creativity. The Milan playmaker created the most chances in Serie A (98) in 2020-21, while his nine assists came from an xA (expected assists) value of 8.5, suggesting that haul came from a place of consistency rather than luck.

But then Turkey also looked solid at the back in qualifying, their three goals conceded in 10 games was the joint-best record alongside Belgium, and Kaan Ayhan's three headed goals en route to the Euros wasn't bettered by anyone, meaning Calhanoglu's set-piece deliveries could be a real asset.

 

Senol Gunes is back at the helm having guided them to third place at the 2002 World Cup, and he may just fancy another upset 19 years on.

Ukraine – Group C

Key man: Ruslan Malinovskiy
One to watch: Illya Zabarnyi

Ukraine are long-term underachievers at this level. They've failed to score in their last five games at the European Championship, the longest goalless run in the history of the tournament.

In fact, none of Ukraine's last 67 shots have ended in the back of the net. This, coupled with the fact their coach Andrey Shevchenko is the only player to find the net for them at the Euros (a brace against Sweden in 2012) highlights their biggest issue over the past nine years: scoring goals.

While the likes of Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka – the latter of whom isn't in the squad due to injury – have good records, Ukraine have lacked a reliable goal threat in the central striker berth practically ever since Shevchenko retired.

 

However, in Gent forward Roman Yaremchuk they may have finally founded a suitable answer, with the 25-year-old heading into the tournament on the back of his best-ever season for goals, having netted 20 times in the Belgian top flight.

Those 20 strikes came from an xG (expected goals) value of 18.2 as well, so although he may have been fortunate once or twice, he would still have expected to get a good haul, which speaks to his reliability in front of goal.

 

Ruslan Malinovskiy of Atalanta is another interesting player. Something of a late bloomer, the talented central midfielder has been an important part of a wonderful Nerazzurri side this season.

While his Serie A-high 12 assists was considerably higher than his 6.7 xA, suggesting his passes benefited from particularly impressive finishing, that xA figure was still only bettered by only six players.

Similarly, his 57 key passes in open play was second only to Luis Alberto (59), yet it's worth bearing in mind Malinovskiy only actually started 22 matches. 

 

Czech Republic – Group D

Key man: Tomas Soucek
One to watch: Adam Hlozek

At Euro 2016, the Czech Republic only managed one point as they failed to get past the group stage, and there will be plenty of people expecting them to crash out in a similar manner again.

Nevertheless, they're a country with a strong history in the competition given this is their seventh successive appearance at the Euros, a streak only Germany (13) and France (eight) can better.

Group D should provide them with opportunities as well. While England will be strongly fancied to finish top, Croatia aren't generally seen as quite the same force they were at the last World Cup, and Scotland, though possessing some talented players, are inexperienced at such competitions.

An area that could prove particularly useful for the Czech Republic in what could prove to be a tight group is their set-piece prowess. Seven of their 13 goals in qualifying were scored at set-plays – that's 54 per cent, the joint-highest ratio of any side to qualify.

That's not their only weapon, however. They do have talented individuals in the squad such as Jakub Jankto and Patrik Schick, the hard-working Tomas Soucek – who won more duels and aerials than any other Premier League player in 2020-21 – and a solid goalkeeper in Tomas Vaclik.

They also have something of a wildcard in their midst: Adam Hlozek.

Despite missing a chunk of the season through injury, Sparta Prague's Hlozek still managed to plunder 15 Liga goals in just 19 matches, and in April he became the competition's youngest hat-trick scorer with his treble against Opava.

He then finished the season with an astonishing four-goal haul against Zbrojovka Brno to finish as the league's joint-top scorer, though he also had six assists to his name. The 18-year-old is a complete striker if there ever was one, and he could be a potential breakout star for Czech Republic if he overcomes a pre-tournament injury.

Poland – Group E

Key man: Robert Lewandowski
One to watch: Kacper Kozlowski

Poland's situation in terms of grouping is quite similar to the Czech Republic. Spain will be expected to top Group E, otherwise it looks difficult to call between the Polish, Sweden and Slovakia.

Further to that, the runner-up spot will secure a second-round clash with the team that finishes second in Group D, which could potentially be the Czech Republic. It's entirely plausible that either of them could get as far as the quarter-finals thanks to a relatively kind draw.

Of course, there are lots of variables to consider before than and along the way, but Poland have the advantage of boasting arguably the world's best striker in their squad.

Sure, Robert Lewandowski has scored only one goal in his last 10 games in major competitions (World Cup and Euros), netting against Portugal in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, but he heads into this tournament on the back of a remarkable season.

The Bayern Munich star's 41 Bundesliga goals broke Gerd Muller's long-standing record of 40 in a single season. The next-best tally in Europe's top five leagues in 2020-21 saw Lionel Messi trailing well behind on 30.

 

Lewandowski unsurprisingly also led Europe in expected goals – with his chances worth 32.2 xG – and expected goals on target, producing shots with a value of 35.8 xGOT.

He and Poland were arguably unfortunate to not reach the semi-finals five years ago as they were the only team never to trail at any point in Euro 2016, with their elimination by eventual winners Portugal coming via a penalty shootout.

If Lewandowski manages to carry over his Bayern form a little better this time around, who's to say they can't go beyond the last eight in 2020.

The year-long delay to Euro 2020 has shifted the narrative for a host of stars, and meant the long wait for a return to the big stage has been extended for others.

Now, though, Europe's elite are set to battle it out as Portugal defend the title they won in France five years ago.

Some players enter the competition in great form and with little baggage, but for others this month-long tournament is a chance to make a big splash, or live up to long-held expectations.

Here, Stats Perform looks at two famous footballing nations, four big-name stars and a coach who bows out of his current job and may have designs on his next assignment.

Gareth Bale: Finished or a new beginning?

The wing wizard can do little wrong in the eyes of Wales and Tottenham supporters, and perhaps now there is a glimmer of hope for his Real Madrid career.

At the end of a season-long loan at Spurs, it seemed likely Bale would head back to Madrid and spend the final year of his contract largely on the sidelines. His future looked to be one of training, playing the odd Copa del Rey game and making fleeting LaLiga appearances, and spending his happiest hours on the region's best golf courses.

Now that Zinedine Zidane has moved on, that could change all of a sudden, and Bale has an immediate chance to make an impression on new Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti when he captains Wales at the Euros.

Bale joined Madrid in 2013, when Ancelotti was embarking on his first spell at the Santiago Bernabeu, but his career in Spain looked to have all but conked out 12 months ago.

The door certainly seems open for the 31-year-old to do just that as, in his presentation news conference at Madrid, Ancelotti said: "Gareth has not played much in the Premier League [in 2020-21], but he scored lots of goals, and was very effective in recent games when he had a chance to play.

"He is coming back, I know him very well, he will be motivated to play better and have a great season, no doubt."

At Spurs, he scored 16 goals across all competitions at an average of one every 104.44 minutes, and his match fitness appeared to be building up nicely when the season ended.

Bale exceeded his expected goals (xG) total of 11.07 quite handsomely, and for the first time since the 2015-16 season he scored more goals than he had big chances.

He had 15 such chances, defined by Opta as situations "where a player should reasonably be expected to score".

Bale is said by some observers to be considering retiring after Euro 2020, but that could be a waste of a still-luminous talent and Ancelotti is sure to be closely watching.

Eden Hazard: Brilliant Belgian has been a Real disappointment

So often sparkling for Belgium and Chelsea in the past, Hazard has left Madrid supporters wondering what has happened to that fizz since he landed in Spain.

He started just seven games in LaLiga in the season just ended, a string of muscle injuries and a spell out with COVID-19 ruining his campaign.

When fit enough to feature, the forward's numbers have been way down on those that he produced – to take a pertinent example – during Belgium's Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.

A fair way of assessing his figures is to look at how Hazard contributes for every 90 minutes he is involved with club and country, and the comparison between his displays in Belgium's run to reach this tournament and in 2020-21 at Madrid shows an alarming dip.

His chances created total per 90 minutes falls from 4.6 to 1.0, his number of touches of the ball slides from 95.1 to 73.8, and his dribbles attempted plummet from 7.4 with Belgium to 4.2 in Madrid's season.

His involvements in shot-ending sequences of play fall from 10.8 to 4.9 per 90 minutes, and analysis of goal-ending sequences shows his contribution drops from 1.9 with Belgium to 0.8 per 90 minutes with Madrid.

It bears remembering that Hazard has not had the run of games that would give him full match fitness. If Real Madrid fans want any succour, they can find it in his Belgium statistics and must hope the coming month sees the 30-year-old roll back his form a couple of years.

A fit and firing Hazard would be a huge asset to Ancelotti, who is expecting the former Chelsea star to have an impact next term.

"Hazard is a top player, he has had injury problems, and not shown his top potential yet here," Ancelotti said. "I believe he can do that next year, he wants to, is motivated."

 

Karim Benzema: Have France really missed him?

Nobody doubts Benzema's ability or his current form. Firing 23 goals for Real Madrid in LaLiga showed he is coming into Euro 2020 in great shape.

The thing is: few expected him to play any part in this tournament.

Off-field matters and an impending court case have seen Benzema frozen out by France, the 33-year-old sidelined from international duty since 2015 following allegations he had a part in a plot to blackmail former Les Bleus player Mathieu Valbuena.

Benzema strenuously denies any wrongdoing and for the duration of Euro 2020 he will aim to show what France have been missing in his absence. They managed to win the 2018 World Cup without him, and reach the final of Euro 2016, yet coach Didier Deschamps has decided his team need Benzema's presence for the coming month.

It could be a masterstroke or could go disastrously wrong, with France a national team who have combusted before during a big tournament.

Benzema last year made the snippy remark that Olivier Giroud was a go-kart and he, by contrast, was a Formula One car, but now they are rivals for selection.

Squad harmony is vital at any major championship, and Benzema's presence brings that little extra frisson. This gamble could go either way. Watching him and France will be fascinating.

Marcus Rashford: Making his pitch for a better England

Manchester United striker Rashford has been a pandemic social justice warrior, emerging as an inspirational figure as he battled for school children to avoid food poverty.

There is so much to admire about the 23-year-old Mancunian, who has also faced – and faced down – appalling racism on social media.

It would take a cold, cruel heart to begrudge Rashford a major moment on the pitch now, and that could come with England over the coming weeks.

On the international scene since just before Euro 2016, Rashford is now fixtures-and-fittings within the Three Lions set-up, but he has still yet to score at a World Cup or European Championship.

Before June's pre-Euros friendlies he had 40 caps and 11 goals and will want to improve his so-so goals-to-games ratio, which is partly explained by the fact only 20 of those caps came as a starter.

Golden Boot winner Harry Kane carried so much of the scoring burden for England at the last World Cup, and sometimes it takes two. Rashford scored three times in Euro 2020 qualifying and is coming off a 21-goal campaign with United, scoring on average once every 197.76 minutes.

The man who is effecting positive change in the way many live their lives, influencing politicians and shaping a better future for millions, could now do his country a massive favour on the football field.

 

Scotland: They're back, thanks to Mourinho's former right-hand man

Few in the Scotland team are long enough in the teeth to remember the last time the Tartan Army descended on a major tournament.

It was 1998, with the Scots giving Brazil a major test in the opening game at the Stade de France. A draw followed against Norway followed the 2-1 loss to the Selecao, before a dismal defeat to Morocco meant the campaign ended in crushing disappointment.

Hopes have flickered and foundered in the decades since, but Steve Clarke, once an assistant boss to Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, has led his team back to the big time.

With the likes of Andy Robertson, Scott McTominay and Che Adams, they possess Premier League quality, and two games Hampden promise to be nourishing for the soul.

Scotland is an expectant nation. That tends to end in intense disappointment at major tournaments, but optimism abounds as the games approach, the June 18 clash with England at Wembley ringed in the diary.

Italy: Blue skies again for Azzurri

It felt absurd that Italy should be absent from the 2018 World Cup, but they failed the meritocracy test of qualification when losing a play-off to Sweden.

That meant they were absent from football's great global gathering for the first time since 1958, and coach Gian Piero Ventura was swiftly given the heave-ho.

Enter Roberto Mancini, the former Inter and Manchester City boss who has led a scorching revival of the Azzurri, a team who won all 10 of their qualifiers and headed into June on a 26-game unbeaten run.

Wales, Turkey and Switzerland are the group-stage opposition for Italy, and the Turkey game in Istanbul gets the tournament underway.

They are a team perhaps without a superstar, but as Paolo Rossi and Toto Schillaci would attest, iconic Italian figures can emerge on the big stage.

Joachim Low: Hit for six, Germany go back to the future

After 15 years, Low will step down as Germany head coach following these finals. Many in Germany think he should have stepped aside already, but Low has powerful support within the DFB, the national federation.

A 6-0 defeat to Spain in the Nations League last November felt like an appalling nadir, with Germany outshot 23-2 in Seville and having just 30 per cent of possession.

Something had to change and it has, with Low summoning Thomas Muller and Mats Hummels out of the international exile he harshly imposed on the experienced pair over two years ago.

Low felt he could do without their talents but it proved a major misstep, and for Germany's sake they are back. What Low does next remains to be seen, but a strong Euro 2020 campaign with Germany would bolster his chances of landing any elite club job.

The 61-year-old was a World Cup winner seven years ago, but the most immediately telling part of his legacy will be written during this European summer.

Carlo Ancelotti is back in charge of Real Madrid and has plenty on his plate after succeeding Zinedine Zidane.

The Italian called time on an 18-month stay at Everton in order to return to the club where he won the Champions League, Copa del Rey and Club World Cup in a spell between 2013 and 2015.

However, Ancelotti inherits a Real squad with plenty of question marks over it.

The Spanish giants have just endured their first trophyless season since 2009-10 and so there is plenty for the 61-year-old to consider as he starts his second stint.

Sergio Ramos' future

Ancelotti joins a Madrid side who are on the cusp of losing captain Sergio Ramos for nothing. The Spaniard has long been in talks over a new deal but, with his current contract days from expiry, no breakthrough seems imminent.

Although his last season was hampered by injury that has cost him a place at Euro 2020 with Spain, Ramos still proved his worth time and time again.

Looking at his performances in LaLiga, the 35-year-old posted better statistics in tackle success rate (80 per cent) and tackles won per 90 minutes (0.85) than any of his fellow Real centre-halves.

He was also dribbled past fewer times per 90 minutes (0.28) than Raphael Varane (0.3), Eder Militao (0.48) and Nacho (1.03).

These statistics could well be enough to convince Ancelotti to keep him around.

Does Hazard have a role?

With 21 appearances, four goals, and further injury issues all Eden Hazard has to show for last season, it has been suggested a departure could be the best outcome for all parties.

But Ancelotti will no doubt be tempted to try and get the best out of the Belgian as he looks to fix an attack that needs to offer a wider threat.

Karim Benzema remains from the Italian's first stint, but no other Madrid player got close to the French striker's 23 goals in LaLiga last term, with Casemiro (6), Marco Asensio and Luka Modric (both 5) next best.

Hazard could be key to bridging that gap if he can stay fit for long enough periods.

What next for returning loanees?

One man who could help on the goal front is Gareth Bale, who scored 11 times in 20 Premier League appearances for Tottenham during a season-long loan stay in 2020-21.

The Welshman first joined Real under Ancelotti in the summer of 2013 and could be more open to staying put with a manager who has faith in him after becoming frustrated under Zidane.

It remains to be seen what happens with Martin Odegaard, who will return from a loan spell at Arsenal where he impressed but perhaps not to the degree necessary to earn a starting place in Madrid.

The futures of Luka Jovic and Brahim Diaz are also uncertain as they return from Eintracht Frankfurt and Milan respectively.

One big sale?

With Real feeling the pinch of a season without supporters, it is likely that the new manager will have to generate his own funds in the transfer market.

And, with moving on fringe players likely to be tricky, the possibility of selling a more in-demand asset increases.

Raphael Varane is one possible contender as he heads into the final year of his contract amid reported interest from the likes of Manchester United.

The Frenchman established himself as a regular starter in Ancelotti's second season and has missed just 68 of the 266 league games played since that point.

Real conceded an average of 1.1 goal per game without Varane across the past seven seasons, and 0.9 in the fixtures in which he featured.

Interestingly, though, their win percentage rose to 73.5 per cent without him in the side from 66.2 per cent with - will these statistics inform the manager's decision?

One big signing?

Money may be tight at Real Madrid, but that won't stop them being linked to the biggest names in world football.

Kylian Mbappe is one of them, the Frenchman having enjoyed another remarkable season in which he scored more goals (21) and landed more shots on target (55) than anyone else in Ligue 1.

The 22-year-old also converted 60.5 per cent of his big chances - a rate that would help ease Real's problems with lack of goals outside of Benzema.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Ancelotti can pull together the funds to start off his reign with such a high-profile signing.

Gareth Bale wants to inspire another famous Wales tournament odyssey at Euro 2020 before he returns to the Real Madrid ranks next season.

The €100million man played a leading role as Wales reached the semi-finals of the last European Championship in 2016.

Widely unfancied before that tournament, Wales were only denied a place in the final by eventual champions Portugal as Cristiano Ronaldo got one over his then Madrid team-mate Bale.

Now Wales go again on the big stage, with Bale coming off a strong finish to the season on loan at Tottenham.

He finished the campaign with 16 goals and three assists in 34 games, starting just 19 of those matches but showing enough flickers of his best form to suggest there is more to come from the 31-year-old. He far exceeded his expected goals (xG) score of 11.07 and converted 11 of 15 goal opportunities defined by Opta as 'big chances' (73.3 per cent).

Reminded of Wales' stellar run five years ago, Bale said: "We'd love to replicate it, but we're realistic. We know it's a different tournament, playing different teams. We also have a very different team to what we did have.

"So it's going to be difficult going into it against these top nations, but we're confident in our own ability and what we can do on the pitch, and we'll be doing everything we can on and off the pitch to try and make as much a success of it as we can."

Bale became a fringe figure at Madrid under Zinedine Zidane's leadership, but with the Frenchman having left Los Blancos, there is the chance of a fresh start in LaLiga for the winger. The flag he held up bearing the slogan 'Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order', when Wales qualified for this tournament, caused uproar in Spain, yet a fit Bale could still be an asset to Zidane's successor.

His first season back at Madrid after Euro 2016 proved underwhelming, with Bale hit by injuries and managing just nine goals in 27 games, failing to exceed his expected goals (xG) mark of 9.32, having done so in two of his previous three campaigns at the Santiago Bernabeu.

A significantly better campaign followed – 21 goals from an xG of 15.82, including a double off the bench against Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League final – but Bale was drifting away from being a regular starter.

He will captain Wales in the upcoming finals, with their opening game coming against Switzerland on June 12 in Baku.

Wales then face Turkey, also in Baku, before heading to Rome to tackle Italy.

After a tremendous quarter-final victory over Belgium at Euro 2016, there will be optimism in the Welsh ranks that something special can be achieved again.

This time, unlike in France in 2016, Wales will have to cope without the songs and the support of their fans in the group stage.

The UK government is advising against all but essential travel to Azerbaijan and Italy.

Bale believes the players will have a good idea of the atmosphere back home in Wales, which would be particularly fervent if the team find a winning knack again.

"I think with everything in terms of the media and even speaking to your friends on Whatsapp, you'll get a gist of what's going on back home," Bale said, speaking as Wales finalised their 26-man squad for the tournament.

"We know we'll be supported in large numbers back in Wales and we'll be trying to do everyone proud."

While it will not be the main item on the agenda, it is fair to say that Manchester United's centre-back strength will be under the microscope in Wednesday's Europa League final against Villarreal.

Of course, any apparent issues at the back will be drowned out – at least initially – if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer guides United to their first piece of silverware during his tenure.

However, as the game approaches, it is at the heart of their defence where United's biggest problem lies, with Harry Maguire unlikely to be fit for the game.

Love him or loathe him, there is little doubt Maguire has been United's best – and certainly most present – centre-back since he joined the club in 2019, with the defeat to his former club Leicester City earlier this month the first Premier League game he had missed for the Red Devils.

He did not feature in any of the final four league fixtures and, even though he has travelled to Gdansk, a starting role seems highly unlikely.

Therefore, it will either be down to former Villarreal man Eric Bailly or Axel Tuanzebe to partner Victor Lindelof – either way, it is hardly the most convincing of partnerships.

If United are to bridge the gap to Manchester City, it has been a long-held belief of many pundits and columnists that centre-back is one of the few areas they have significant room for improvement in, with the options available in Maguire's absence highlighting that.

Up against them on Wednesday will be Pau Torres, a central defender who has been linked with some of the world's biggest clubs, including United. Could he be the long-term answer they are looking for?

The playmaker at centre-back

Maguire has enjoyed a solid season for United, his influence at the back made all the more notable in the two matches they have lost without him. The main question mark is over the man next to him, which is usually Lindelof.

For a period last year, it appeared as though United would try to bring in a left-footed centre-back to partner Maguire, who would be allowed to shift back to the right side of the pairing.

Nathan Ake seemed an obvious candidate given Bournemouth's relegation and the fact Solskjaer appeared to indicate his interest in the Dutchman after a game against the Cherries – his comments caught by a nearby television camera.

He went to Manchester City instead, but Torres has a similar profile in that he is a left-footed centre-back who is praised for his ability on the ball.

Playing out from the back has been a frequent aspect of United's play under Solskjaer, and Torres would certainly fit in – his tally of 747 forward passes in LaLiga this term were bettered by only Jules Kounde (918) and Clement Lenglet (812) in terms of fellow defenders.

Where he does better than both, however, is bringing the ball out of defence. His 432 progressive carries – movements that take the ball more than five metres upfield – is 42 more than any other LaLiga defender, while he has carried the ball 4,784.4 metres up the pitch, again a high for the league.

This has even translated into having an attacking influence, with his two assists at the end of a carry only bettered by Jose Gaya – a full-back – among defenders. In fact, he's the only centre-back to get more than one assist in this fashion.

It all demonstrates how useful and reliable Torres can be for a team that wants to build from deep. Stylistically at least, it would seem the Spain international could be a great fit for United.

Room to grow, or not enough of an upgrade?

Despite the acclaim Torres has received over the past two seasons, there are those unconvinced by some of his defensive skills.

He has been accused of being too prone to making snap decisions, which does not tend to bring positive results for him in one-on-one situations, while it has also been pointed out that his communication with a partner can be poor, especially when it comes to offside traps.

The other potential issue is, while Torres is undoubtedly a wonderful player technically and arguably the most gifted centre-back in that regard in Spain, his weaknesses are similar to those already seen from Lindelof during his time at Old Trafford.

The problem many have with Lindelof is that he too often appears uneasy in physical confrontations, while also looking uncomfortable against nimble forwards.

Torres is athletic – tall, quick and strong, but he still seems unsure how best to use those physical traits at times, and his defensive numbers are not an upgrade on Lindelof.

The Sweden international averages more aerial challenges (3.5) and aerial wins (2.2) per 90 minutes than Torres (2.7 and 1.7) in the 2020-21 season, while their frequency of being involved in duels is very similar: 5.8 for Lindelof and 5.5 per game for Torres.

Torres does win more of those duels on average (3.4 to 3.3), but the difference is negligible. As for their respective abilities to sniff out danger, Lindelof also comes out on top with regards to interceptions, averaging 1.1 per game to Torres' 0.7.

Such metrics can often be skewed when an individual – in this case Lindelof – is playing for a team expecting to spend more time in possession against most opponents they come up against.

It underlines that Torres is generally a passive centre-back, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as Maguire is rather different, but it is a key aspect United would have to take into consideration if they are to make a move for him.

The caveat for Torres' blind spots, however, is that he is still only 24 and 2020-21 is just his second full season in LaLiga – he does have plenty of time to develop.

His exceptional technical skills at least provide him with a solid platform to build from, but would the other side of his game mean he would be considered an upgrade over Lindelof?

The Europa League final will be his final audition and an opportunity to prove how his strengths outweigh any weaknesses.

The Ligue 1 title tussle between Paris Saint-Germain and Lille is going to the wire, and it is Les Dogues who hold a slender advantage heading into the final day.

Lille could have won the title – their first since 2010-11 – last week had they beaten Saint-Etienne and PSG dropped points against Reims.

Neither of those outcomes came to fruition, however, and Lille are just one point ahead with one game left to play. It is the smallest gap between a leader and the second-placed team at this stage in a Ligue 1 campaign since 2001-02.

Christophe Galtier's team need only to beat Angers to guarantee their triumph, but the mid-table team are one of the only three sides Lille have lost to this season in Ligue 1, while PSG face Brest.

Just below the title battle, Monaco – who have a slim chance of taking top billing – and Lyon are vying for the final Champions League spot. 

Monaco could yet end up at the summit, but Niko Kovac's team would finish fourth if they fail to beat Lens and Lyon defeat Nice.

At the other end of the table, there is potential for drama, with six teams between 18th-placed Nantes and 13th-placed Reims involved in a relegation scrap.

It has been a tightly fought contest throughout the season at the top of the table, but all will be decided on Sunday.

How does the predictor work?

First of all, here's how we got the data...

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality. Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly. All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position. The points total is based on an average of the predicted points from the simulations of the league outcome.

Let's see how the model now predicts the final league table will look...

 

Lille likely to pip PSG to the post

Our model suggests that it will be Lille who hold firm to triumph this season, and claim their fourth Ligue 1 crown in the process, giving Les Dogues a 57.9 per cent chance of finishing top.

Lille did lose to Angers earlier this season, but they had won the previous three matches against them.

Angers, though, have only failed to score in two of their 18 Ligue 1 home games against Lille, doing so in their first such meeting in September 1957 (0-0) and in their most recent in February 2020 (0-2).

However, Lille's away form is superb – they have won 11 of their last 12 Ligue 1 games on the road.

Opta's AI predicts a 34 per cent chance of Lille finishing second, and an 8.9 per cent of them finishing third. The latter outcome would require Lille to lose, PSG to avoid defeat, Monaco to win, and there to be at least a six-goal swing in goal difference in the principality club's favour.

For PSG, the model offers them a 45.7 per chance of finishing second. If they drop points at all, then Lille will only need to draw to win the title, while a defeat – combined with a Monaco victory – would see Mauricio Pochettino's team finish third. Opta predict there is a 10.9 per cent chance of this happening.

There is very slim potential (3.1 per cent) for PSG to finish outside of the Champions League places and in fourth, but the goal difference swing required (17) would be bordering on the realms of impossibility.

PSG have a 40.3 per cent chance of finishing top, with Monaco not technically out of the running – they have a 2.6 per cent chance.

Monaco would need both Lille and PSG to slip up for that to occur. However, their main focus is to secure Champions League football.

Opta suggests this may be tough, with Lyon – led by the in-form Memphis Depay – given a 43.2 per cent chance of snatching third place, with Monaco destined for fourth. This is due in part to their poor record away at Lens in Ligue 1, where they have won just one of their last 14 top-flight games.

Bad luck for Brest

In the relegation scrap, Opta predict that Nantes, who currently occupy 18th place or Brest are the most likely teams to have to play-off against Toulouse or Grenoble Foot for a place in next season's Ligue 1.

Brest of course face PSG, and they have lost their last three Ligue 1 home games against the capital club, giving them a 50 per cent chance of finishing 18th.

Nantes are in action against Montpellier, and the model suggests their most likely finishing position is also in the bottom three (35.8 per cent), though only one unwanted place is up for grabs.

Reims, who sit in 13th, are not mathematically safe, with only two points between them and Nantes, but they are predicted to secure their top-flight status for next season.

Lorient, Bordeaux and Strasbourg could also be dragged into the relegation/promotion play-off place.

Atletico Madrid are champions of Spain again after holding off heavyweight pair Real Madrid and Barcelona in the closing stages to win their second LaLiga crown in eight seasons.

Atleti beat Real Valladolid 2-1 on Saturday to finish two points above Madrid – the only side that could catch them heading into the final round of games after Barca lost ground.

Diego Simeone's men moved into top spot with a 4-0 win over Cadiz on November 7 and, despite some inconsistency over the past two months, they have stayed there ever since.

With the help of Opta, we took a look at the numbers behind Los Colchoneros' latest triumph.

ATLETI BREAK MADRID-BARCA STRONGHOLD

Atleti have now been crowned champions of Spain 11 times – three of those in the last 43 years – which is third only to perennial winners Real Madrid (34 titles) and Barcelona (26).

Athletic Bilbao are next on the list with eight titles to their name, while Valencia have come out on top on six occasions.

Indeed, Simeone's charges are the only side other than Madrid or Barca to finish at the summit of Spain's top flight in the past 16 years, doing so this season and in 2013-14.

Atletico have now claimed the title in at least one season in eight of the last 10 decades – only in the 1920s and 1980s did they fail to do so.

DESERVED TITLE WINNERS

Atletico have spent 30 matchdays on top of the table, despite only stringing together successive wins on a couple of occasions since the end of January.

They won 26, drew eight and lost four of their 38 matches to end the season with 86 points – their longest winning run being the eight strung together between December 19 and January 31.

It is the 10th time Atleti's fate has gone down to the final day of the season, most dramatically of all in 2014 when drawing away at Barca to hold off their title rivals.

That season, incidentally, Simeone's side spent 11 matchdays alone at the top of the table.

THE CHANGING FACE OF ATELTICO

Another interesting aspect of Atletico's title success is that this is the first season they have averaged more than 50 per cent possession in the league under Simeone.

They have averaged 52.02 per cent possession in LaLiga in 2020-21, which compares to 48.75 per cent in the season they last finished top, and is an increase on the 47.86 per cent they managed last season when finishing 17 points off top spot.

Increased possession has led to a better balance, too, with Atletico scoring 67 goals this season, which is the joint-third most they have mustered in Simeone's nine seasons at the helm, alongside 2014-15 and behind 2013-14 (77) and 2016-17 (70).

The 25 goals they have conceded, meanwhile, is their fourth-best return over that time, their best season in that regard being the 18 goals shipped in 2015-16.

OBLAK, SUAREZ AND LLORENTE KEY TO SUCCESS

As Simeone has himself repeatedly pointed out, this has once again been a collective effort from Atletico.

However, there is no doubt that this latest title triumph would not have been possible if not for certain individuals – none more so than Luis Suarez, who joined from Barcelona at the start of the season for a small fee.

The Uruguay international scored comeback-clinching goals for Atletico in their final two games of the season and won 21 points for his side in total – more than any other player in the division – with his 21 goals.

Indeed, only Radamel Falcao in 2011-12 (24 goals) and Antoine Griezmann in 2014-15 (22) have scored more goals in their first season at the club in the 21st century.

At the opposite end, goalkeeper Jan Oblak made 103 saves from the 125 shots faced in LaLiga this season – an 80 per cent save rate, the best percentage of any keeper in Europe's top five leagues among those to have played at least three times.

Marcos Llorente is another deserving of special recognition, having played a direct part in 23 LaLiga goals – 12 of his own and a further 11 assists – a tally that is bettered by just Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes (30) among midfielders in Europe's top leagues.

His 12 goals came from an expected goals (xG) return of 3.4 – a difference of 8.6 – which is the biggest differential between xG and actual goals of any player in the big five leagues bar Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski (41 goals from an xG of 32.3).

 

Atletico Madrid are Spanish champions again, Saturday's tense 2-1 win at Real Valladolid sealing the title seven years on from their only previous championship success under Diego Simeone.

Much like on that occasion, Atletico had to wait until the final day of the season to make absolutely sure of their triumph, something few would have predicted of their campaign not too long ago.

Simeone's men have been top for much of the season, granted, but in recent months their position at the summit became precarious.

It's fair to say they have ridden their luck over the past few weeks, including on Saturday as they had to come from behind at Valladolid, but their supporters will be fine with that after they eventually brought it home.

Following their title-clinching victory, we look back on the other matches that have been crucial in their success.

Atletico Madrid 6-1 Granada, September 27

Okay, maybe it's a little over the top to suggest Atletico's very first game of the season had much bearing on winning the title, but the manner of it was seriously impressive and set the tone for the rest of the campaign – even if they did draw their next two matches.

It was a particularly memorable outing for Luis Suarez, who, cast aside by Barcelona, netted a brace as he became the first player this century to score and assist on his Atletico debut.

Atletico romped to what was their biggest opening-day win under Simeone, and they've hardly looked back.

 

Atletico 1-0 Barcelona, November 21

Barca were in turmoil at times in the first half of the season and that gave Atletico the perfect opportunity to gain a psychological edge. With Suarez missing against his former club, the visitors might have fancied their chances, but Atletico prevailed to claim their first league win over the Blaugrana in more than 10 years.

Yannick Carrasco got the all-important goal as Atletico set a club record of 24 LaLiga games unbeaten, while Barca were left with just 11 points from their first eight league matches, their worst start to a season since 1991-92.

Eibar 1-2 Atletico Madrid, January 21

One aspect of Atletico's trip to Ipurua in January will be recounted time and time again by statisticians, and it's not that they came from behind to win. No, the most fascinating element of this game was that it was Marko Dmitrovic who broke the deadlock from the spot, becoming the first goalkeeper to score in LaLiga since Dani Aranzubia in February 2011. The last stopper to net a penalty was nine years before that.

 

But it was Atletico who had the last laugh. Suarez scored both of their goals, including a last-gasp penalty, to spare Los Colchoneros' blushes.

While a win away to Eibar – who've since been relegated – may not look like much, who's to say that having someone as reliable as Suarez to convert a late penalty under pressure wasn't the decisive moment in their title quest?

Barcelona 0-0 Atletico, May 8

At the halfway point of their season, Atletico were seven points clear at the summit with two games in hand on Real Madrid in second. They had been devastatingly effective in the first half of the season as they collected 50 points, but in the 18 matches since, that haul has plummeted to 33.

Atletico have been far more erratic since the turn and their trip to Camp Nou looked especially uncomfortable, as a defeat would have seen Barca go above them in the table, while any result other than a win will have given Real Madrid the initiative.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen impressed for Barca in the first half, making six saves, though clear-cut chances weren't exactly a regular occurrence, neither side even managing to reach 1.0 xG (expected goals) over the course of the game. Atletico faced a nervous wait to see if their neighbours would capitalise…

 

Real Madrid 2-2 Sevilla, May 9

The second part to a title-race double-header across May 8 and 9, Madrid and Sevilla both still fancied their chances of sealing the crown at this point, and what an occasion it was in Valdebebas.

Madrid looked to be heading to a remarkable defeat when they had a late penalty overturned because Eder Militao was controversially deemed to have handled in his own area at the start of the attack, with Ivan Rakitic converting the spot-kick to put Sevilla in front for the second time.

Toni Kroos saw a long-range shot deflect in off Eden Hazard deep into stoppage time but it was not enough – winning the title was no longer in their own hands.

 

Atletico 2-1 Osasuna, May 16

The title looked to be slipping from Atletico's grasp again last weekend, as Ante Budimir's 75th-minute header put Osasuna in front shortly after Madrid had gone 1-0 up at Athletic Bilbao – at this juncture Los Blancos were top by a point.

Renan Lodi levelled for Atletico with 82 minutes on the clock but that wasn't going to be enough, as they would still sit behind Madrid due to their inferior head-to-head record. They needed another.

 

With two minutes left, Suarez ended something of a mini-drought to clinch victory, his 20th goal of the season, a haul that had secured Atletico 19 points at that point – only Sevilla's Youssef En-Nesyri could match that at the time.

The goal sparked joyous celebrations on the pitch, Atletico's bench and in the stadium's car park where a group of supporters gathered.

It left them with the two-point advantage over Madrid that was required heading into the final day, with Simeone's men subsequently refusing to throw it all away against Valladolid, despite falling behind once again.

 

Oscar Plano put Valladolid in front in the first half, but Atletico rallied after the interval as Angel Correa netted a brilliant equaliser and Suarez sealed the win 23 minutes from time, Madrid's own turnaround against Villarreal elsewhere ultimately an irrelevence.

Atletico are the champions.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have not got their hands on the Stanley Cup since 1967.

A member of the "Original Six", Punch Imlach's Maple Leafs conquered their Canadian rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, for their 13th Stanley Cup 54 years ago.

It was Toronto's fourth championship in the 1960s, which formed the second of two recognised dynasties from 1947 to 1951 and from 1962 to 1967.

The celebrations then stopped for the Leafs, leading to the longest active title drought in the NHL – 52 consecutive seasons (not including the 2004-05 lockout).

But, after years of pain and false hope, are Sheldon Keefe's Leafs – spearheaded by Auston Matthews and a supporting cast that includes Mitch Marner – finally on the cusp of ending their long-standing drought?

It has been more than four decades since the Leafs and Canadiens faced off in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As the Leafs, who have not won a playoff series since 2004, prepare for the mouth-watering first-round showdown, we look at the team's rise from pretenders to genuine contenders, using Stats Perform data.

 

Leafs find their way under Keefe

There were high hopes when the Leafs and Ontario native Mike Babcock came together in 2015. Toronto made the Stanley Cup-winning head coach the highest paid in NHL history following his success with the Detroit Red Wings.

One of the most coveted coaches at the time, the championship-chasing Leafs viewed Babcock as the perfect man to oversee the culmination of rebuild in pursuit of the ultimate prize. Despite a talented roster, the franchise's vision did not materialise – Toronto never made it out of the first round of the playoffs following three consecutive postseason appearances. Babcock's style did not go down well at Scotiabank Arena.

The Leafs eventually fired Babcock in November 2019 and Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe was promoted to the top job.

At the time of Babcock's departure, the Leafs led a league-low 21.1 per cent of the time. This season, Toronto rank second for the highest percentage of time leading (45.4), just behind the Colorado Avalanche (45.5).

This season's percentage of time leading is the highest mark in Leafs history, eclipsing the 43.1 per cent recorded in 1924-25.

The Leafs have long been judged by the Babcock era, but the 40-year-old Keefe is finally utilising this highly skilled squad, while helping John Tavares rediscover his best form.  

Toronto also appear to finally have the kind of physicality it needs for the demands of playoff hockey. Complementing their exciting roster with the experience of premier top-line center and former San Jose Sharks All-Star Joe Thornton also bodes well as the Leafs enter the postseason as one of the heaviest teams in the league – 201.1 pounds, only behind the Vegas Golden Knights (207), Dallas Stars (203.1), Washington Capitals (202.9), Anaheim Ducks (202.6) and Tampa Bay Lightning (202.4).

 

Matthews in a league of his own

The Leafs wasted no time selecting Matthews in 2016 when he was widely considered the top prospect of the NHL draft.

Matthews hit the ground running, becoming the first player in modern NHL history to score four goals in his debut. He also set a Leafs record with 40 goals in his first season, while becoming just the second rookie since the 2004-05 lockout to achieve the milestone.

The centerpiece of the franchise has taken his game to another level this season.

Matthews, who has developed into arguably the best goal-scorer of his generation, tallied a remarkable league-high 41 goals in just 52 games in 2020-21. He managed 47 in 70 regular-season appearances last year. The last Leafs player to lead the NHL in goals was Gaye Stewart in 1945-46.

Matthews' performance led to the best goals-per-game average (0.79) in franchise history, topping Charlie Conacher's record of 0.77 that had stood since 1931-32. The 23-year-old Matthews already has 199 goals and 351 points in his career.

He ranks 14th all time for the most goals before age 24, but he finds himself in good company on a list that is topped by Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky (405) and includes Mario Lemieux (300), Steven Stamkos (222), Alex Ovechkin (219), Sidney Crosby (215) and Jaromir Jagr (202).

 

Toronto's dynamic duo

While Matthews is the star, Marner is the other half of Toronto's terrific duo.

A much-loved figure in Toronto, Marner has always been a great young player with loads of potential. The 24-year-old right wing took a step forward this season as a model of consistency for the North Division champions.

Marner, who was a fourth-round pick a year before the Leafs brought in Matthews, ranks fourth in the NHL in points (67) and assists this season (47). And with the Ontario-born winger on ice, the Leafs have scored 89 goals and conceded 57 this season – a differential of plus-32. That differential shrinks to just plus-6.0 without him.

Keefe paired Matthews and Marner together midway through last season and it is a move that continues to pay dividends. Marner has assisted on 25 Matthews goals this year, ahead of Edmonton Oilers duo Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid (22) for the most in the league.

Marner and Matthews are also the first pair of team-mates in NHL history to have five 60-point seasons together before turning 24. (This is based on their age when they reached 60 points. Marner achieved the feat before celebrating his 24th birthday.)

With Matthews and Marner leading the way, the Maple Leafs have a real shot of not only beating their rivals in the first round but in ending one of the longest active title droughts in North American sports.

It is that time of year again – the NBA playoffs.

Although this season has a different feel due to the new play-in tournament, it's crunch time as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers eye back-to-back championships.

The Utah Jazz claimed the best record in the league for the first time in their history, while Eastern Conference top seed the Philadelphia 76ers and the star-studded Brooklyn Nets loom large.

With the play-in tournament due to get under way to determine the final eight teams from each conference set to feature in the playoffs, the Stats Perform AI team have been crunching the numbers to find a worthy winner of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Stats Perform model takes proprietary data and creates an offensive and defensive rating for each team.

Those ratings are paired with the team's opponent and adjusted for each team's pace. In addition, the home team get a slight boost for home-court advantage.

The model uses this information to calculate a projected score for both teams. The winners receive a victory in the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy – this was done for every game in the playoffs.

So, here are the AI-generated results in the event that the play-in winners are the Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

 

Suns sizzle as Lakers crash out, Heat stun Bucks in sweep

Much has been made about the Phoenix Suns this season. Led by All-Star Devin Booker and star veteran Chris Paul, the franchise returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10. Second behind the Jazz in the Western Conference, the Suns ease past the Lakers 4-1. Winning the opening three games 120-93, 90-88 and 105-104, Phoenix never look back as they end the Lakers' quest to land consecutive championships for the first time since 2009-10.

The Milwaukee Bucks loaded up heavily in the offseason, bringing in Jrue Holiday to aid two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in his quest for a title and the franchise's first since 1971. But after trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and semi-finals, the third-seeded Bucks are sensationally swept 4-0 by last season's runners-up the Miami Heat.

Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001, the Joel Embiid-led 76ers flex their muscles 4-2 against the Wizards but it is not easy. Dropping consecutive games to Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and Washington, Doc Rivers' Philadelphia rally past the Wizards 112-109, 91-99 and 110-104 to bounce back from last season's first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics.

Boasting a three-headed monster in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, the second-seeded Nets dig deep against the Celtics 4-3 in the east. With all eyes on the star-studded Nets big three following an injury-interrupted regular season, Brooklyn lose two of the opening three matchups but reel off back-to-back victories to set the tone before progressing beyond the first round for the first time since 2013-14 thanks to a 110-91 Game 7 triumph.

Looking to put last season's playoff capitulation behind them, having sensationally surrendered a 3-1 lead at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semi-finals, Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers make light work of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks 4-1. A 128-106 rout in Game 1 ignites the Clippers, while the third-seeded Nuggets – spearheaded by MVP favourite Nikola Jokic – are upstaged by the Portland Trail Blazers 4-3. Following in the footsteps of the Clippers, Denver cough up a commanding 3-0 lead as Damian Lillard's Trail Blazers complete a stunning comeback.

The New York Knicks and their fans have been waiting since 2013 to play postseason basketball. Their playoff return does not disappoint as the fourth seed – spearheaded by All-Star Julius Randle – make the most of their home-court advantage against the Atlanta Hawks to come out 4-3 winners. Trae Young's Hawks race out to a 3-1 lead but the Knicks are not to be denied.

 

Trail Blazers continue giant-slaying run, Clippers bow out to Jazz as 76ers roll on

Ranked sixth heading into the playoffs, the Trail Blazers defy their seeding by producing another shock performance, this time outlasting the highly fancied Suns in seven games. Western Conference finalists in 2018-19, Portland humble Phoenix 129-96, 117-86 and 126-92 in Games 1, 3 and 4 to seize the momentum and while the Suns storm back to force a series decider, Lillard, CJ McCollum and the Trail Blazers step up to the plate.

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert experienced consecutive first-round exits in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but featuring in their first Conference semi-final since 2018, the Jazz prove too hot for the fourth-ranked Clippers and take a 4-2 series win. Utah, who beat Los Angeles in two of the three regular-season contests, win the opening three games of the second-round series and never look back as pressure mounts on Leonard, Paul George and the championship-chasing Clippers.

The standout teams in the east, the 76ers and Nets barely raise a sweat en route to the Conference Finals. In pursuit of a first championship since 1983, the 76ers sweep the Knicks 4-0, while the Nets end Miami's hopes with their own devastating 4-0 success.

 

Nets conquer 76ers, Jazz rally past Blazers

A matchup many predicted when the 76ers appointed head coach Rivers and the Nets landed former MVP Harden in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets in January. Philadelphia's cast of Embiid, fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, sharp-shooter Seth Curry and Danny Green come up against Durant, Harden, Irving and Blake Griffin, and it is Brooklyn who prevail in a thriller. The Nets and 76ers split the opening six games before a deciding seventh game. With a championship berth on the line, Steve Nash's Nets edge the 76ers 112-109 as question marks again emerge over whether the Philadelphia franchise can succeed with both Embiid and Simmons.

Not since 1997-98 had the Jazz secured a spot in the Finals, having enjoyed back-to-back appearances in the midst of Karl Malone's greatness, but Utah end that drought against Portland. The Jazz overturn 1-0 and 3-2 deficits to finally end the Trail Blazers' fairytale run as Portland fall agonisingly short of their first Finals appearance since 1992.

 

Jazz make history

The last five head coaches to win a title in their first year were Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors, 2019), Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016), Steve Kerr (Warriors, 2015), Pat Riley (Lakers, 1982) and Paul Westhead (Lakers, 1980). Rookie and two-time MVP Nash has been looking to join that list with a Nets side eyeing their maiden championship – having faced a long wait since joining the league in 1976-77.

Despite a frightening array of talent, the Nets go down 4-1 in the Finals as the Jazz make history, headlined by a resounding 121-102 win in Game 5.

After consecutive Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998, the Jazz finally break through for their first NBA title thanks to coach Quin Snyder, Mitchell, Gobert, Mike Conley and Co.

Europe's top five leagues all conclude this week and there are still plenty of matters to be resolved – not least who will be crowned champions in Spain and France.

Every division has something riding on the final days of the season, whether it be top spot, European qualification, or relegation.

Ahead of what is set to be a dramatic conclusion to the Premier League, LaLiga, Ligue 1, Serie A and the Bundesliga campaigns, we look at the state of play in each league.

 

PREMIER LEAGUE

Manchester City wrapped up the Premier League title with three games to spare, making them the first team in the competition's history to win the title despite being as low as eighth on Christmas Day.

All three relegation places were also decided with three games remaining – a Premier League record – with Fulham joining Sheffield United and West Brom in dropping down a division.

That leaves just the European spots to fight for, and it is shaping up to be an entertaining end to the English top-flight season in that regard. Manchester United are guaranteed a top-four finish, but five other teams – Leicester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and West Ham – are in the mix for the two other Champions League berths with two rounds of games to go.

There is also the small matter of the Europa League places for the teams finishing in fifth and sixth, as well as a spot in the inaugural Europa Conference League, which goes to the team in seventh, meaning everyone from 10th-placed Leeds United to Leicester in third have something to play for. That includes Arsenal, who have not missed out on European football of some sort in 25 years.

LALIGA 

The Spanish title race appeared to take a dramatic twist on Sunday as Real Madrid leapfrogged Atletico Madrid at the summit for around 20 minutes. However, Atleti scored two late goals to beat Osasuna, meaning they are two points ahead of their city rivals heading into the final round of games.

Atleti, who have led the way at the top for 29 matchdays, now need to match Madrid's result against Villarreal when they travel to relegation-threatened Real Valladolid on the final day of the season. It is worth noting that Los Blancos have the superior head-to-head record, so a draw would not be enough for Atleti if Madrid win.

Barcelona are officially out of the title race, meanwhile, but they are assured of a top-four finish along with Sevilla. Real Sociedad and Real Betis occupy the Europa League spots, while Villarreal are in a Europa Conference League berth, though just one point separates the three teams so that could all yet change.

To complicate matters, Villarreal could still qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League final against Manchester United.

At the bottom end of the division, Eibar are already relegated and they will be joined by two of Valladolid, Elche or Huesca. Valladolid must beat Atletico in their final game to have a chance of staying up, while the onus is on Elche to better Huesca's result as they are level on points but have an inferior head-to-head record.

LIGUE 1

The Ligue 1 title battle is also going right down to the wire in a three-way dogfight. After a thrilling race that has lasted the course of the season, underdogs Lille lead heavyweights Paris Saint-Germain by one point with one matchday left.

Monaco have won seven of their previous eight games and are three points off leaders Lille, though they require both Les Dogues and PSG to slip up on the final day, as well as beating Lens. Should it come down to goal difference, PSG hold a big lead over their two title rivals.

Incredibly, PSG are still not yet technically assured of a Champions League place as Lyon in fourth are only three points worse off, although it would take a defeat for the reigning champions and victory for Lyon, plus a goal swing of 16, for them to miss out.

Monaco's opponents Lens, incidentally, also have plenty to play for at the weekend as they are sixth – enough for Europa Conference League qualification – but can still be caught by Rennes in seventh, while they could yet overtake Marseille in fifth if results go their way.

At the opposite end of the table, there may only be one spot left to be settled in the bottom three – Dijon and Nimes are both already down – but six teams are still very much in danger of the drop. Nantes occupy the relegation play-off spot, with Lorient, Brest and Strasbourg just a point better off, and Bordeaux and Reims only two points clear.

SERIE A

With Inter being crowned Scudetto winners for the first time in 11 years at the start of the month, the biggest storyline in Serie A regards Juventus' top-four fate. The dethroned champions, who had finished top nine years running before this season, are currently down in fifth.

Juve are one point behind Napoli and Milan in the two spots directly above them, while Atalanta are three points better off in second and have the better head-to-head record against the Bianconeri.

Andrea Pirlo's side are therefore in need of favours on the final day in what is poised to be a nail-biting finale in terms of those Champions League places. Lazio will finish sixth, so they are assured of Europa League football next term, while Roma hold a two-point advantage over Sassuolo in the Europa Conference League position.

Parma and Crotone are both down already and one of Benevento or Torino will join them, the latter currently three points outside of the relegation zone and with a game in hand to play on Benevento.

BUNDESLIGA

RB Leipzig provided Bayern Munich with some stern competition for a while, but the Bavarian giants' quality eventually told and they are Bundesliga champions for a ninth year running.

It's not only the title race that's done and dusted in Germany, in fact, as RB Leipzig are certain of second place, and both Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg will join them in the Champions League next season.

Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen, meanwhile, will finish in fifth and sixth respectively regardless of events later this week.

However, Union Berlin have work to do if they are to finish seventh for a place in the Europa Conference League play-offs as Borussia Monchengladbach are a point further back, while Stuttgart and Freiburg are two behind with a game to go.

Seven-time German champions Schalke will be competing in the second tier of German football next season, but Cologne and Werder Bremen are hanging on in there, sitting two and one point behind Arminia Bielefeld respectively in 15th place.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the real deal. The question is, can he match or even surpass the career of his Hall of Fame father?

Vladimir Guerrero is a name synonymous with baseball. Guerrero Sr. was voted one of the most feared hitters following a stellar career spanning 16 seasons that included an American League (AL) MVP, nine All-Star selections and eight Silver Slugger Awards.

Powerful just like his dad, Guerrero Jr. is now flying the family flag in living up to the hype, spearheading the Toronto Blue Jays' exciting young core in a bid to end their World Series drought, which dates back to 1993.

 

From prospect to star

Guerrero Jr.'s success is no surprise. He had long been on the radar when the Blue Jays signed the top international free agent in 2015. Before making his major league debut in 2019, he worked his way through the minor leagues – initially with the Rookie Advanced Bluefield Blue Jays before opening the 2017 season with the Class-A Lansing Lugnuts. He then joined the Advanced-A Dunedin Blue Jays later that year.

John Schneider – part of Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo's coaching staff – was manager of the Dunedin Blue Jays that year, a roster which also boasted Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Danny Jansen, as Guerrero Jr. had 56 hits, 31 runs, six homers, 31 RBI and a .333 batting average.

"Everyone sees the talent and the name obviously because of his dad and all that kind of stuff. But just how intelligent he is… and him as a team-mate and person," Schneider told Stats Perform News. "His team-mates love him. He loves coming to the yard and playing every day, having fun.

"It's been cool to watch him transform himself from a young kid with a ton of talent and having fun to a really established, difference-making major league hitter right now."

Guerrero Jr. – born in Montreal – has 35 hits, 24 runs, seven homers and 23 RBI with a .310 average this season, while boasting a .447 OBP, .549 SLG and .995 OPS – all career highs through 33 games in his third season in the majors. His 456-foot moon shot against the Kansas City Royals has put him in esteemed company in terms of distance this season, while his max 116.1 exit velocity is a number not many in the sport can even dream of matching.

A popular player in the team with an infectious smile, Guerrero Jr. also celebrated an accomplishment beyond even his famous Dominican father achieved – a three-plus homer and seven-plus RBI game last month against Max Scherzer's Washington Nationals as the 22-year-old became the youngest player in MLB history to achieve that feat.

The matchup against the Nationals also featured his third career grand slam. Aged 22 years and 24 days, Guerrero Jr. became the youngest player since Alex Rodriguez (20 years and 345 days in 1996) at the time of his third slam.

"People are drawn to him – players, staff. It's fun to be around him. He comes to the field with a smile every day and he comes every day having fun. It rubs off on guys. It's cool to have him go through the minor-league system with Bo, Cavan, Gurriel and those guys," Schneider said. "They know each other very well, they're comfortable with each other and it's something they've always done. It's easier for them to be themselves now and Charlie does a good job allowing everyone to do that. He has an infectious personality."

In his first 33 games of his third MLB season in 1998, Guerrero Sr. tallied more hits (39), fewer runs (19) and the same number of homers (seven), while he was inferior to his son when it comes to batting average (.307), OBP (.350) and SLG (.535).

"You forget how young he is because of how good he is," Schneider said. "He is always working on things whether it's offensively, defensively or game-planning wise. It's an adjustment period between the minor leagues and the big leagues.

"We've always kind of seen him as a hitter, being this talented and hitting the ball hard. But being able to watch him and look at advanced reports, have a much better plan going into every game has been a big difference. Watching him evolve at first base and third base for that matter has been great. You get the exceptional offense and forget that he is 22 years old and there is always going to be continued development throughout the course of his career."

 

Hard work pays off

During the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season, Guerrero Jr. finished with 58 hits, 34 runs and nine homers with a .262 batting average as the Blue Jays returned to the postseason for the first time since 2016. He had one hit as Toronto bowed out in the Wild Card Round at the hands of eventual World Series runners-up the Tampa Bay Rays.

Guerrero Jr. is now reaping the rewards after an intense offseason – shedding the pounds between the playoffs in October and Spring Training in February. He is gliding around the bases and making a mockery of major league pitching.

His walk percentage has rocketed from 8.2 in 2020 to 17.7 this season – a differential of plus 9.5, the largest increase in 2021, ahead of the Houston Astros' Yuli Gurriel (+7.7), Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Max Muncy (+7.5), Detroit Tigers outfielder Robbie Grossman (+7.5) and Nationals outfielder Victor Robles (+6.7).

In terms of OPS, his increase from .791 in 2020 to .995 (+.205) is the fifth-largest this season, behind only the Boston Red Sox's J.D. Martinez (+.396), Gurriel of the Astros (+.301), Chicago Cubs star Javier Baez (+.208) and Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout (+.208).

Guerrero Jr. has also reached base on 63 occasions through Toronto's first 33 games of the 2021 season. That number ranks eighth all time in franchise history – Jose Bautista (70 in 2014) is first.

"Throughout the course of his career, in the minors, he was always finding himself in good counts," Schneider said of Guerrero Jr's patience at the plate this year. "Part of it was people were very careful with him and I think it's a little bit different in the minors command wise. Now, the biggest thing is that he's doing the same thing – you look up and it's 1-0, 2-0, 2-1 and he is laying off of borderline pitches where I think in his first two years he was putting in play.

"He is laying off those pitches knowing he can put them in play but maybe can't do damage with them. He has the very rare ability to be looking for a heater and get the hanging breaking ball and hit it out. He has better command of his strike zone with the combination of understanding how a pitcher is going to attack him."

Guerrero Jr. is fast becoming one of the elite first basemen in MLB. He is also forming a formidable partnership with team-mate and shortstop Bichette in the field.

In 2021, Guerrero Jr. and Bichette rank eighth for most direct assist-putout combinations by duos with 58 – Texas Rangers pair Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Nate Low (86) top the list, which only counts direct throws from one player to the other.

Guerrero Jr. is also fifth for the most total fielding chances in the majors without committing an error (228) this year.

"He has worked tirelessly with Luis Rivera our infield coach at first base but he always been a very, very good athlete," added Schneider. "Getting himself into really good physical condition has really helped him on both sides of the ball. Last year was kind of a crash-course at first base in a shortened season with a long lay-off due to COVID but he has taken it head-on and learnt new things.

"Just little things like when to get a ball to his right and when to go to the bag. It's just coming at you in a different angle than what he was used to last year. He's been doing a ton of reps and has always had the physical ability."

With 216 career games to his name, Guerrero Jr.'s stat line reads – 219 hits, 110 runs, 31 homers, 125 RBI, a .274 batting average, .353 OBP, .457 SLG and .810 OPS. It is not far off his father at the same stage of his career – 258 hits, 129 runs, 39 homers, 125 RBI, .317 average, .361 OBP, .541 SLG and .903 OPS.

Guerrero Jr.'s numbers also stuck up well against some Hall of Fame first basemen, including Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez, Eddie Murray, Jeff Bagwell and Jim Thome.

Cepeda: 279 hits, 136 runs, 40 homers, 153 RBI, .319 batting average, .350 OBP, .538 SLG and .888 OPS
Perez: 144 hits, 66 runs, 16 homers, 88 RBI, .254 batting average, .303 OBP, .412 SLG and .715 OPS
Murray: 232 hits, 108 runs, 36 homers, 119 RBI, .280 batting average, .332 OBP, .463 SLG and .795 OPS
Bagwell: 216 hits, 110 runs, 23 homers, 120 RBI, .277 batting average, .372 OBP, .426 SLG and .798 OPS
Thome: 180 hits, 104 runs, 30 homers, 98 RBI, .256 batting average, .346 OBP, .449 SLG and .794 OPS

In the grand scheme of things, Vladdy's career is still in its infancy and he has barely scratched the surface of his potential, but he is on track to follow in his dad's footsteps, and then some.

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